Strengthen creativity

Will Lean kill creativity in innovation

All outstanding business success is the result of innovative project work

In order to establish an innovative work process, it is essential to blend creativity & efficiency in the right ratio. This is true individually for team members, but also for collaboration within a team. Most professionals know that Lean can help increase efficiency, but how does Lean influence creativity?

Will Lean kill creativity in innovation?

For quite a few years Lean has been the magic word in business. First by being an integrated part of Toyota’s success, later by making Porsche a success company, enabling even a take-over of the much larger Volkswagen. Hundreds of companies throughout the world have had significant and measurable success by implementing Lean.

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By the way, Toyota does not actually call it Lean, but Toyota Production System (TPS). The term ‘Lean’ was first used by an American and an Englishman, Womack and Jones, while writing their book Lean Thinking in 1996. Ever since, Lean has been applied heavily, and some might think that Lean soon will go out of fashion. And even though the term ‘Lean’ might not continue to be the number one buzzword in the board rooms, the key principles still hold, and we believe they will for many, many years to come.

Manufacturing companies were the first to use Lean principles, then banks, call centres, insurance companies and other factories “producing” paper started to introduce “Lean Administration”. More recently, development organisations have started applying Lean. Lean migrated from operations into development environments. Starting in product development within manufacturing companies, Lean spread to knowledge-based businesses such as universities, consultancies and advertising agencies. Why did that happen?

It happened because Lean supports some fundamental truths, which all organisations and projects need in order to be successful. Really, it is common knowledge communicated in very simple terms. But as we all know, being simple and clear, is not always that simple. In our work with innovation processes we have found that a few principles can increase value of the solutions considerably.

Lean principles in knowledge-based teamwork

Making it visual, together

A visual and teambased process creates more insightful knowledge than individual work. A visual process increases energy and motivation, enabling team members to build on each others ideas rather than shoot them down, because they come from another department. It also supports open dialogue and focus within the project. For instance when visualising the project plan on the wall, team members better understand what have to deliver to other team members and why they have to do it. This is a great way of establishing joint commitment towards the project objectives.

Strive for continuous improvement

Small and frequent improvements are better than large and infrequent improvements. Many significant business successes have been built by taking a lot of small steps in the right direction. It may sometimes seem as if a company just came up with a great concept all of a sudden. And surely writers of business books like to sell the idea that some recipe which they happen to have – will produce genius break-through products and services.

The best innovators are those companies with the fastest learning cycles. The learning cycle “idea –> feedback –> revise idea”, should be as fast as possible, and repeated as often as possible. An innovative executive once said “You have to fail often to succeed sooner”. The principle about continuous improvement is all about succeeding sooner, through fast learning.

Invert the pyramid

The employees closest to the ‘problems’ are those best suited to create the solutions. For instance, when developing a new product it is very unlikely that the R&D director will be the person who has had the most insightful experiences with
the product, and the problems it is trying to solve. It is far more likely that those employees who meet a lot of customers – specifically unhappy customers – will acquire the insights needed to generate smart solutions.

Likewise, when making key decisions in a project, it is better to invite the steering committee down to the project room than to invite the project manager up to the board room. After all, the focus should be on project success, not on management team convenience.

So, will Lean kill creativity?

If you ask 10 average business people, 9 of them would probably say yes. That’s the obvious answer. They would say that too much structure and follow-up will discourage creative people. Creatives would feel that they are being put into boxes, and labelled too. They would feel that they are no longer allowed to experiment, and that they have to walk the straight line towards the goal.

They would think it sounds boring. Admitted the word “Lean” is pretty boring, but that’s another discussion. They might go on to say that you cannot produce great ideas on command. Great ideas come when they come. And they might say a lot of other things too.

We believe the answer to the question is ‘no’. The answer is ‘no’ for three very good reasons.

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Henrik Sonnenberg
Henrik Sonnenberg
+45 2338 0031